miss universe

On December 13, 2021, Miss Universe crowned its 70th winner: Harnaaz Kaur Sandhu, bringing the title home to India after 21 years, the last being by Lara Dutta in 2000. While there has been much celebratory tub-thumping among Indians, one can’t help but notice the dark riptides of systemic illnesses that flow beneath the glary surfaces. Beauty pageants have been important in the consolidation of capitalist culture. The first Miss Moscow beauty pageant, held in 1989, indicated the unleashing of glasnost (openness) and the consequent downfall of the USSR; in the Caribbean, small island nations used beauty pageants to market themselves as tourist destinations; in Latin America and Africa, beauty pageants signaled the onset of a fast-spaced modernity, tethered to the neo-colonial center of USA. Miss Universe follows a similar historical trajectory, sharing a space with capitalism.

Founded in 1952, under the aegis of Catalina bathing suits, the Miss Universe contest remained a junior partner to the Miss World jamboree until Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) and former US President Donald Trump – at that time an eccentric New York City (NYC) real estate developer – took over the enterprise in late 1996.  Driven by the ruthless cut and thrust of liberalization, Trump and Co gave a new lease of life to Miss Universe, directly pitting it against Britain’s Miss World. The upright rhetoric of empowerment in which this updated pageant was couched served as a cloak for the seamier sides of neoliberalism. In first year of ownership, Trump called Miss Universe, Alicia Machado, Miss Piggy for her weight gain and Miss Housekeeper for her Latinx origins.

In 2010, he boasted to David Letterman that he had made the heels higher and the swimsuits smaller. He also remarked that Miss Universe served his business interests, allowing him to hold this glamorous event in countries he liked to have commercial relations with or where a Trump Tower was on the cards. Trump was forced to forsake his proprietorship in 2015 when he referred to Mexican immigrants as drug dealers and rapists, prompting the National Broadcasting Company (NBC), and various pageant judges, celebrity hosts, and sponsors to drop out of the contest. The new owners tried to remake Miss Universe in the mold of synthetic progressivism, describing the pageant as a “global inclusive organization that celebrates women of all cultures and backgrounds and empowers them to realize their goals through experiences that build confidence and create opportunities for success”.

In her chapter in “The Routledge Companion to Beauty Politics”, Karen W. Tice writes: “this shedding of Trump management has not been extended beyond a superficial rebranding of the pageant.” “The Miss Universe pageant website instructs would-be contestants that they must be “confident, understand the value of our brand, and have the ability to articulate ambition,” consolidating neoliberal fantasies for mobility through beauty and self-reliance”. Miss Universe’s continuing links to the global engines of exploitation have been clearly confirmed by the controversy surrounding this year’s contest. The pageant was held in Eilat – a city built upon the ruins of a small Palestinian fishing town of Um al-Rashrash during the Nakba, when almost 750,000 Palestinians were expelled by Zionist militias in 1948 to lay the foundations of Israel.

The participants showed cold insensitivity to this brutal fact. Pictures emerged of them participating in a “visit Israel” campaign while wearing the traditional Palestinian Thobe and rolling grape leaves. These visits are a part and parcel of the propaganda network run by the Israeli Tourism Ministry which – as a letter from Palestinian and Arab women emphasizes – “plays a direct role in legitimizing the theft of Palestinian land, the exploitation of Palestinian natural resources, the obstruction of the Palestinian economy and denying Palestinians their right to sovereignty over their own heritage and culture. Through its various campaigns including “Brand Israel,” the Ministry employs tourism to whitewash Israel’s war crimes and grave violations of Palestinian human rights, such as the massacre of Palestinians in Gaza.”

Against the background of a social media outrage over the cultural appropriation and genocide of Palestinians, Sandhu said: “We come here to unite and to share cultures…This is not where we should talk about disparities. It’s something which talks about unity and inspiring each other…I’m actually enjoying myself and my journey in Israel because it’s a beautiful country”. It is for these glib utterances that Mandla Mandela – Nelson Mandela’s grandson – declared: “There is nothing beautiful about Apartheid in Israel and there is nothing beautiful about occupation of Palestinian lands. The Miss Universe Pageant event is just a poor attempt to conceal the occupation, genocide and crimes against humanity that are perpetrated daily against innocent Palestinians”.

Mandela’s criticism of the pageant drew the flak of Miss Universe Iraq – Sarah Idan – who is associated with major Zionist organizations and has even launched her own organization to promote normalization between Israel and Arab states. “How dare you as a man try to tell an organization for women and women empowerment what to do,” she said. She described the event as an “opportunity” for millions of women who dream of going on the world stage to represent their countries. Her response fits perfectly into the dominant template of hyper-corporatism which thrives on gendered discourses of self-empowerment and preened bodies to promote the world of cosmetic and couture brands.

A rooted perspective is provided by the grassroots organizations that work among the oppressed women. In its call for the boycott of Miss Universe, the Palestinian Feminist Collective emphasized that the “pageant utilizes age, gender, marital status, and sexuality as central criteria for evaluating women’s worth and promotes normative ideals of beauty and body size that are rooted in colonial, racist, and sexist legacies and practices.” This instrumentalization of “racist and capitalist notions of beauty to appraise women’s individual success through patriarchal values…obscures the structural forms of injury such systems inflict on women of the global south.” However, these realities of injustice are brushed aside by people like Sandhu who – to put it bluntly – choose to strike a Faustian bargain in order to carve a comfortable toehold in the cosmos of neoliberal consumptionism.

As the winner, Sandhu will receive a prize package that is symbolic of the glittering hallways of upscale lifestyles. Miss Universe receives a yearly salary of $250,000, a luxury building in NYC and additional money for wardrobe, hair products, fitness and international travel. To top it off, access is given to Broadway plays, casting opportunities, movie premieres, and a modeling portfolio. Instead of bathing in the false resplendency of elitism, Sandhu should pause and reflect on the following: do we want a world of idealized beauty myths – bankrolled by multinational corporations – that is filled with similarly sculpted women subscribing to identically ideated clothing or do we want a world that actively resists something as fundamentally brutal as Israeli settler-colonialism?


Yanis Iqbal is an independent researcher and freelance writer based in Aligarh, India and can be contacted at yanisiqbal@gmail.com.

Countercurrents is answerable only to our readers. Support honest journalism because we have no PLANET B. Become a Patron at Patreon Subscribe to our Telegram channel


Comments are closed.

Translate »